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Bird flu research dangers: Experts weigh in

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January 16, 2012|By Eryn Brown, Los Angeles Times / for the Booster Shots blog
  • Scientists and policymakers have expressed concern about recent bird flu research -- and a U.S. advisory board's request that the results stay under wraps.
Scientists and policymakers have expressed concern about recent bird… (Dita Alangkara / Associated…)

In nature, bird flu kills more than half of the humans it infects -- but it's very hard to catch. 

So when two research teams -- one led by Ron Fouchier of Erasmus Medical Center, in Rotterdam, Netherlands, and the other by Yoshihiro Kawaoka of the University of Wisconsin in Madison -- recently engineered bird flu strains that passed easily between mammals, people worried: would rogue groups get hold of the virus and use it as a weapon of terror? Would they use the research to engineer their own contagious strains?  

Hoping to play it safe, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity, a U.S. government advisory panel, asked the journals Science and Nature to delay publication of the research until a system could be set up to allow scientists who need access to the work to see it while keeping sensitive information from dangerous hands. 

The journals complied, but a heated debate about the research ensued. As the scientific community ponders how to proceed, the journal Nature on Sunday published a series of comment articles by experts that underscore how complicated the process will be. 

Fouchier, the Dutch researcher who created one of the new H5N1 flu viruses, argued that the NSABB's action amounted to one country dominating a discussion that impacts scientists and citizens around the world. One commenter wanted the World Health Organization involved. A scientist working in Hong Kong -- where the first human infection with H5N1 occurred -- wrote in support of the decision to limit publication. Writers worried about the virus escaping inadvertently -- for example, if a laboratory worker fell ill and then sneezed in a crowded restaurant, a la the movie Contagion. They also worried about a chilling effect on needed research.

Read the Nature comment articles.

Nature also reported last week that plans for providing access to the research might be ready within weeks.

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